Updated: Aug 6, 2020
The majority of the Conan Doyle stories are narrated by Holmes’ constant champion, Dr John H. Watson, although one that is told by Holmes is the Adventure of The Musgrave Ritual.
This is believed to be one of Holmes’ earliest cases – if not the first – but was originally published in Strand Magazine in 1893 and eventually became one of the short stories in the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection.
This is the Holmes story the Drama Merchant will be presenting on line from June 13 as part of the 2020 detective season, which already enjoyed success with Dashell Hammet’s The Thin Man and The Fat Man.
The Musgrave Ritual, which features a story within a story, is considered to be a classic example of what’s known as a frame tale.
A frame story is a literary technique where an initial narrative sets the scene for a secondary narrative or set of stories.
The concept of the frame story goes as far back as ancient Egypt and has been adopted often down the centuries from the tale of the One Thousand and One Nights to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
The style is a popular in the New Testament often featuring in the Gospels, particular those of St Mark. The Musgrave Ritual is said to channel elements of two Edgar Allan Poe stories, The Gold Bug and the Cask of Amontillado, and in 1922 was ranked 11th in Conan Doyle’s own list of his top 12 Holmes stories.
The story did rather better in a 1959 chart from The Baker Street Journal, coming in at number six in a top ten list.
In the story Holmes recounts a visit to an old university acquaintance, Regnald Musgrave, who is concerned at the disappearance of two of his domestic servants, a maid Rachel Howells, and longtime butler Richard Brunton. The search leads the pair to a question/response riddle dating back to the 17th century known as the Musgrave Ritual and the game is afoot.
Original images from The Musgrave Ritual
The story has had many incarnations including a French silent film, Le Tresor des Musgrave, a loose adaptation in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes series (in the 1943 movie Sherlock Holmes Faces Death) and even referenced in T. S. Eliot’s 1935 verse play Murder in the Cathedral.
There’s much more that can be said about both Holmes and the Musgrave Ritual, as volumes have been written about both, but here’s a parting thought.
Holmes never said, ‘Elementary my dear Watson’ in any of his stories, but legends, and the Holmes phenomenon is among literature’s greatest, have a life of their own.
By Doug A. Kennedy
The Radioplay Hour: The Musgrave Ritual can be heard 10th - 14th July at 7:00pm, on The Drama Merchant website.